Clubs are now global, yet at heart they are still local institutions
Players like Trent Alexander-Arnold bond club and community, giving sense of place
Alexander-Arnold, who grew up in Liverpool, has volunteered for a community charity, An Hour for Others, on his own time since his academy days. “I can relate to the kids,” he said. “I know what impact it can have just to show that it is possible.” Rob Stothard/The New York Times
Trent Alexander-Arnold shuffles uneasily on his feet. He is standing in the assembly hall at St Cuthbert’s, a Catholic primary school in Liverpool, a few minutes’ drive from the part of the city where he grew up. About 50 or so children sit on benches in front of him. Some beam with pleasure. Some whisper excitedly. Most just stare at him, as if he has descended from another planet.
This, certainly, is a new world for Alexander-Arnold. It is barely more than a year since he made his Premier League debut for Liverpool, his hometown team, and a few months since he scored his first goal.
He is 19. He remembers what it was like to be one of those children, eagerly hoping for a visit from Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher, and he still finds the idea that he might now be anyone’s hero a little strange. “It still hasn’t caught on for me, really,” he said.
On a cold Friday morning in December, he is here on behalf of a local charity called An Hour for Others. The organisation has prepared hampers, packed with food, to be handed out to some of the most underprivileged children at the school.
It is the sort of initiative most Premier League teams - most sports teams across the planet, in fact - run every Christmas. Players visit fans in the hospital, or arrive unannounced at schools. Alexander-Arnold’s visit to St Cuthbert’s is different. He is here with the blessing of his club, but not at its behest. He has not been sent here as part of Liverpool’s community program. This is his morning off - he is due in for training at 2.30pm - and this is how he has chosen to spend it.
He feels the responsibility, “as a local lad, to get involved,” just as the likes of Carragher and Gerrard did before him
The concept behind the program that connected him with St Cuthbert’s, An Hour for Others, is simple, self-explanatory. One of the group’s founders, Kevin Morland, a painter and decorator, decided that his time and skills could help those in need more than his money. He started off redecorating children’s bedrooms in some of Liverpool’s most deprived areas at no cost to residents, and slowly the concept spread.
Now, An Hour for Others offers everything from cooking classes taught by professional chefs to dance, yoga and science sessions. Some people volunteer their time, others their equipment or access to their property. Alexander-Arnold was still just a hopeful at Liverpool’s academy when he became involved.
His mother, Diane, recommended one of the charity’s first beneficiaries to Morland and his partner, Gill Watkins. Alexander-Arnold, in his midteens at the time, was summoned early one morning to help load boxes of donated toys into Morland’s van.
From that point, he said, he was determined that if he ever had a career as a professional he would use his success to promote the charity’s work. Together with Kris Owens, whom he called his best friend at Liverpool’s academy, Alexander-Arnold sketched out a plan years ago. “We said that if either of us made it, we would help out the charity,” he said.
Over the last decade or more, the academies of Premier League teams have morphed into factory farms, designed either to generate talent or create revenue. Clubs invest millions every year into scouting, recruiting and training the brightest young prospects, with the aim either of unearthing future first-team stars or mass-producing players to be sold, preferably at a healthy profit. Clubs have built state-of-the-art facilities that resemble, more than anything, vast industrial complexes. It is fitting: Youth development has become an exercise not in education, but heavy industry.
Accordingly, the conversation around which academies are succeeding and which are failing is based solely around their output of professional players. At best, academies are seen as existing solely to bring talents into the first team. At worst, they are seen as an additional source of income, a way of bringing in money that can then be invested in the transfer market.
To maximise their usefulness, clubs have long signed players not just from around Britain, but from across Europe (and sometimes farther afield). All clubs cherish homegrown players - not least because, in the Premier League and the Champions League, a squad must contain a set number of them - but few care anymore where home actually is. Cesc Fabregas was born and raised in Barcelona, but counted as a homegrown player at Arsenal. Andreas Christensen, a Dane, is the apogee of Chelsea’s youth system.
That unapologetically internationalist, industrial approach is understandable, given the intensely competitive environment in which clubs exist, but it means one significant element has been lost. Local players are not desirable because they are cheap, or plentiful, but because they bond a club to its community. They give it a sense of place.
“My house is just over there, the one with the purple bins,” Alexander-Arnold said as he drove to another appointment with An Hour for Others, at a community center not far from Liverpool’s Melwood training facility.
Liverpool, the city, is not simply a place where Alexander-Arnold works; it is his home. He has a curious family connection to Manchester United: His maternal grandmother, Doreen Carling, is mentioned in Alex Ferguson’s autobiography as the great manager’s “first steady girlfriend.”
They dated for 18 months or so as teenagers in Glasgow “before it suffered the fate of most first romances and petered out,” Ferguson wrote, and ended completely when Carling moved to New York and married. (Because of this, Alexander-Arnold, technically, is eligible to play for the US national team.) More remarkably, one of his mother’s cousins, John Alexander, was for a long time Manchester United’s club secretary.
Ferguson once asked Alexander-Arnold, not long after he had first signed to join Liverpool, why he had not tried to join United instead. “My mum doesn’t drive on motorways,” was the immediate response. In reality, though, Alexander-Arnold wanted to be a homegrown player, in the truest sense of the term.
He is from this city and he is of it, too. He points to the park where he used to play soccer after school, where there were “always a few people looking for trouble.” He has friends who found it, and whose lives have diverged drastically from his as a result. He still lives with his mother, albeit in a slightly more upmarket suburb, but still feels the pulse of the city.
That is part of the reason he wanted to help Morland and Watkins. Even while leading the relatively sheltered life of a professional soccer player, he “sees the challenges people face, hears about things people are going through.” He is aware that if he were not giving back, his friends “would ask me, ‘Why not?’”
Though he is not yet used to the smiles and the stares, he feels the responsibility, “as a local lad, to get involved,” just as the likes of Carragher and Gerrard did before him. “I can relate to the kids,” he said. “I know what impact it can have just to show that it is possible.”
In the ruthless, globalist Premier League, such considerations seem quaint. What fans, owners, managers and players want is success - this weekend, this season. A team having a local heart is no more than a sweet anachronism. What matters more is that clubs have top-class players, not where those players are from.
Yet the enthusiasm with which Liverpool has embraced Alexander-Arnold suggests that something, in the rush to industrialise youth systems, has been lost, and is being missed. Clubs are now international brands, with worldwide appeal and distant horizons. At heart, though, they are still local institutions. They do not exist on a different planet. They represent a place, and sometimes, still, they reflect one, too.